Trees or Rhizomes? Tribal and kinship identities and relations among Bedouin groups in the Modern Middle East

The desert and steppe regions of the Middle East were – and in partly still are – populated by a large number of nomadic Bedouin groups. Within a socio-political system that was characterized by great physical mobility as well as fluid and rapidly changing alliances, tribal and kinship identities and relations served as a factor of stability and formed a central reference point for the formation of group alliances. However, the expansion of modern statehood into the desert and steppe regions from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, profoundly transformed the Bedouin’s political, social and economic livelihoods. How did the meaning of tribal and kinship identities and relations evolve in such historical transformation processes, which were marked by the sedentarization and social stratification of Bedouin society? What role did tribe and kinship play in Bedouin alliance strategies in the modern era?

This paper examines these questions by looking at Bedouin groups in Syria and Iraq in the period from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. During this time, which also saw an increase in scientific interest in Bedouin societies, Arab and European scholars began to record in writing tribal genealogies that had until then been largely transmitted orally. The resulting graphic accounts usually took the form of family trees used by historians studying Bedouin societies to this day. However, the rather rigid ‹tree model›, is of limited use for understanding tribal and kinship identities and relations in changing historical contexts. Drawing on post-structuralist thought, this paper instead chooses another element from nature, namely Rhizomes, as model to illustrate the complex and multidimensional alliances between Bedouin groups and the meaning of tribe and kinship therein.